UK could 'turn into another India' if Boris Johnson dithers over variant, COVID adviser warns

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 12, 2021: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street for the House of Commons to give MPs an update on Covid-19 and lifting restrictions in England ahead of the second day Queen's Speech debate, on 12 May, 2021 in London, England. (Photo credit should read Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson has been warned not to 'dither' over the Indian variant. (Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

A leading coronavirus adviser has warned that the government needs to “act hard and act fast” if the Indian variant turns out to evade vaccines.

Prof Stephen Reicher, who advises the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said that if this is the case, Boris Johnson must not “dither and delay as in the past”.

Referring to the dire infection numbers in India, which caused a record 4,205 confirmed deaths on Wednesday, he added: “Unless we want to turn into another India.”

There are three variants in the UK that have been identified in India, but scientists are most concerned about B.1.617.2.

According to the last Public Health England update on variants from Thursday, detected cases of B.1.617.2 more than doubled to 520 last week.

TOPSHOT - Relatives wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPR kit) mourn during the cremation of a person who died due to the Covid-19 coronavirus at a cremation ground in New Delhi on May 11, 2021. (Photo by Sajjad HUSSAIN / AFP) (Photo by SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images)
People wearing personal protective equipment mourn during a cremation of a person who died of COVID-19 in New Delhi, India, amid the country's coronavirus crisis. (Sajjad Hussain/AFP via Getty Images)

There is currently no solid data about the impact the variant may have on vaccines, though England’s chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty said on Monday: “At this point in time our view is it is less likely to be able to escape vaccination than some of the other variants, particularly the South African one."

Nonetheless, concerns are growing about the variant’s presence in the UK, particularly as Prof Whitty said it could be at least as transmissible as the Kent variant – which caused the massive spike of infections, hospital admissions and deaths in December and January.

While detected infections involving the variant remain relatively low, cases are nonetheless rising sharply, as this graph from coronavirus modeller Dr Duncan Robertson shows.

Coronavirus variants detected in the UK as of 5 May. (@Dr_D_Robertson/Twitter)
Coronavirus variants detected in the UK as of 5 May. (@Dr_D_Robertson/Twitter)

On Wednesday, Boris Johnson issued an extraordinary warning about the “potentially lethal danger” variants – such as the Indian one – could pose to the UK’s successful vaccination programme, which had seen 67.8% of adults having received a first dose as of Wednesday.

“Should these prove highly transmissible and elude the protection of our vaccines,” he told MPs, “they would have the potential to cause even greater suffering than we endured in January.”

Watch: Boris Johnson confirms COVID pandemic inquiry

Daily COVID-19 deaths peaked at 1,477 on 19 January, according to government data.

On Monday, Johnson confirmed the third stage of easing England’s lockdown restrictions. It will allow people to mix indoors, including in pubs and restaurants.

Given the Indian variant's transmissibility, any evidence it can elude vaccines could force Johnson to rethink his road map and even reinforce restrictions.

Prof Reicher on Wednesday warned against “dither and delay” – something Johnson has been accused of with all three of the national lockdowns he has imposed during the pandemic.

For example, Prof Neil Ferguson, the scientist whose modelling convinced the prime minister to impose the first lockdown on 23 March last year, told MPs in June last year that deaths during the first wave could have been halved if Johnson had started that lockdown one week earlier.

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According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) weekly epidemiological report, which was released on Tuesday, the B.1.617.2 variant has been identified in 31 countries. Of those, the UK has reported the largest number of cases outside India.

However, the WHO also said its potential impact on vaccines remains “uncertain”.

Watch: Wednesday's UK coronavirus numbers